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By Laurie Chin Sayres

A few years ago I was sitting in my living room with my trusted MacBook Pro on my lap prepping for classes at Cal State Long Beach when I came across an intriguing Associated Press article.  Like a mad or nutty professor who just discovered the missing piece to an important equation, I exclaimed: “Yes! Exactly!” I may have even done a bit of a jig in the middle of the piles of books and papers that surrounded me.  In this AP article, actor Dennis Haysbert stated that his character President David Palmer on the hit TV show 24 helped pave the way for President Barack Obama.

To be honest I was excited for two reasons. First, it’s not often that I find claims like this in the public realm. The academic/real and popular culture/fiction spheres occupy two different theoretical spaces in our collective societal mind so any influence of one over the other is usually dismissed or ignored.  However, as a cultural historian and filmmaker I believe that in reality the two spheres are not that distinct and I was excited to find an article that also suggested this.  And, secondly, I could now include this article in my lecture when discussing the power of images in our society. I used Haysbert’s statements in class quite frequently because the article provided a concrete example of what I was trying to convey to my students – media images do indeed heavily influence the way we understand the world around us.  Trust me.  It’s one thing for a quirky History & Film Studies Professor to assert wild ideas about the influence of media images; however, it’s a completely different thing when a Hollywood actor – President David Palmer to boot – believes that TV images shape the way we perceive the world.

Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer on Fox’s hit TV show 24.

Haysbert’s claim illustrated that the following could very possibly be true:

TV images do have power

TV images do shape the way we see the world

TV images should be examined

TV images could have even played a role in electing the first African-American President of the United States

And although Haysbert didn’t explicitly say the above, I believe the sentiments are implied in his actual words:

“If anything, my portrayal of David Palmer, I think, may have helped open the eyes of the American people. . . And I mean the American people from across the board – from the poorest to the richest, every color and creed, every religious base – to prove the possibility there could be an African-American president, a female president, any type of president that puts people first. . .” (Sonner, Scott, Dennis Haysbert: I Helped Pave Obama’s Way, 7.1.08)

Now, I am NOT claiming that the character President David Palmer directly, or even indirectly, resulted in votes for President Obama. What I am arguing is that the depiction of President David Palmer shaped our popular and collective understanding of the world and how it operates.  After the first several seasons of 24 aired the idea of an African-American man now fit into our cultural understanding of what a President was and should be.  We as a society had now collectively visualized, rallied around, supported, and rooted for an African-American male President of the United States.

How many times did you sit on the edge of your seat with your heart in your throat rooting and praying for President David Palmer? On Monday nights millions tuned to Fox putting their faith into President David Palmer (and perhaps Jack Bauer, too – but that’s a blog post for another day).  Part of the power was the platform. There have been several portrayals of African-American presidents in films, but I would argue none quite like President David Palmer. 24 took the country by storm, not just in its popularity but in the grip it had on our consciousness.

The thing with images and the media is that once you see something – it becomes real. I’m not saying that we can’t discern the difference between fiction and reality, but what I am saying is that once we see something we can now visualize it, understand it, and it enters our consciousness as a possibility.  For example, we collectively know that the world portrayed in Star Wars is fictional. It’s not real. However, we have now come to understand and visualize concepts that were previously not in our collective consciousness. “The Force”, however fictional it may be, holds a place of real substance and meaning in our society now.

So again, although I would never claim that President Palmer garnered a single vote for President Obama, Haysbert’s portrayal of Palmer led to a shift in our collective understanding of the world around us and what could exist or happen in that world. If we are going to call it like it is and be honest with ourselves, can we honestly say – as a society – that an African-American President was really a part of our collective understanding pre-President Palmer?

Although I will live and die by the belief in the power of images to shape our ideas and the way we see the world, I believe that how these images shape our understanding varies from person to person, from region to region, and from country to country. We as a society need to discuss this influence and the power of images. It’s not an individual, but rather a collective process.

How are images generated? How do we process these images? What power do they hold? How do they shape the way we see the world around us? It’s not about getting everyone to think what I think.  What I want to do with this blog and Labragirl Pictures is to start talking about these issues.

What do you think about Haysbert’s claim? How did his portrayal shape the way we see politics? The world around us? Would you vote for President Palmer in the upcoming election? I found a comment on a blog by a poster saying that he would vote for Dennis Haysbert if he would just promise to try to act like President Palmer. I’m thinking many would agree – but that’s also a blog for another day.

Up Next: Labragirl Resident Blogger Declan Murphy’s discussion about War from the Civilian Perspective.

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